As I passed the door to the basement I noticed Claire, our beautiful stupid cat, meowing to be admitted. “Raphael,” I called out, “do you want to let the cat downstairs?” He came trotting up, all belly and enthusiasm. “Ah do it myself!” he announced, and wrestled the door open. Claire brushed past him with a purr/meow of thanks, and he turned to me with glee. “Ah DID it!”
“Yes,” I replied, homing in on my whole reason for engineering this tableau, rather than just opening the door myself, “and Claire was so happy that you helped her!”
When I was pregnant with my first child I read somewhere that if you focus on how your child’s kind actions make others feel good, rather than praising them directly, it would help them develop a sense of empathy. That too much praise makes kids self-focused. However, helping them appreciate how their actions make the people around them feel helps them learn compassion.
“Oh,” I thought, “I want that. That whole compassion/empathy thing. I’ve gotta remember to do that.” And so I added it to my bag of tricks, my many little techniques that I would employ in my quest to raise the perfect child. I had quite the bag of tricks, having been working in early childhood education for years. All along I had been storing up the little nuggets of information that I was sure would help. For instance, no child of mine would have a coloring book, for that would inhibit his natural creativity. No, instead my child would be handed blank paper and crayons and the freedom to CREATE. I would not hand down edicts like the unenlightened generations of parents that had gone before. No point-blank orders, dulling my child’s sense of self worth. I would explain my reasoning for asking (respectfully) for a change in behavior. I would patiently illuminate my motivation for curtailing certain activities (“I know it’s fun to jump down the stairs holding this knife, but I’m afraid if you trip you could cut yourself and that would hurt and then you would be sad.”). This would help my little one grow in understanding and logic, and help him to make good decisions himself. My child would benefit from the many tools I had amassed. Unlike those poor other children, born to parents who didn’t know all the tricks.
Well, the first thing I learned is that parenting advice that seems absolutely logical in a book or magazine or ECE class isn’t that logical to an actual child. Tools that I knew would serve me well...didn’t. I quickly figured out that although it’s nice to be able to explain your motivations for saying no, sometimes you have to be able to just say no. I’ve even followed up a blunt “no” with a terse “because I said so.” Some mornings there just isn’t time to go over the many reasons he can’t wear his swimsuit to church. In January.
And as for coloring books…let me count…we have 18 of ‘em. I hope it doesn’t ruin their creativity, but sometimes you just need a coloring book. Oh well, they’re my kids; odds were against them having any artistic ability anyhow.
What I’ve realized, I hope, is that parenting isn’t about little techniques. It’s not about the thing I do in this or that situation. It’s the sum of what I do in all the situations. The whole of my interactions with them and with others. It requires repeating myself again and again and again and again and again. And again. If my sons learn empathy it won’t be because I pointed out to Raphael the cat’s joy at his thoughtful act. It will be born of a million moments, a mosaic of what I said, and what I did, and what others said, and did, and off hand comments, and books they read, and other things I can’t even imagine, all coming together to form a picture of caring. I can’t orchestrate that. So I pray, and then do my best and hope.
But old habits die hard. Sometimes I catch myself in a moment like today, at the basement door. And I remember how in control I was before I had children. Makes me chuckle.